Any pork left in the discretionary grants barrel?

by Robyn Seth-Purdie

The Albanese Government has been highly critical of its predecessor’s allocation of funds under discretionary grant programs, some of which gave rise to claims of pork barrelling.

In its analysis of grants allocated under seven Commonwealth programs with Ministerial discretion that operated between 2013 and 2021, the Australia Institute found that funding clearly favoured marginal seats, doing so at the expense of safe Labor seats and, in some cases, safe Coalition seats.

As part of the Budget, the current Government announced that it will not proceed with one of these programs, the Building Better Regions Fund Round 6. It also announced the closure of the Community Development Grants (CDG) program, along with “a pathway for those CDG projects properly accounted for up to the Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook” to be funded through new election commitment programs.

The budget provides $1 billion over two years for two grants programs in the Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government portfolio:

  • The Growing Regions Program, which provides “new opportunities for regional local councils and not-for-profit organisations through an annual open, competitive grants process”; and
  • The regional Precincts and Partnerships Program, which will provide “a strategic, nationally consistent mechanism for funding and coordinating larger-scale projects that transform a place, to benefit communities in regional cities and wider rural and regional Australia”.

It is to be hoped that lessons learned from the Auditor General’s analysis of previous grants programs will ensure that these programs are administered in a transparent manner that places top priority on meeting community needs. In other words, these programs should be run in accordance with the government’s promises of ensuring integrity in grants administration.

All discretionary grants programs need to be administered in accordance with the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 (Cth) and the Commonwealth Grants Rules and Guidelines, which require, inter alia, value for money, accountability, and probity.

In its report on Operation Jersey, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption found that  pork barrelling can constitute corruption. Similarly, the forthcoming federal national integrity body should create a strong incentive for enforcing the relevant standards.

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